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Economic anxieties curb appetites

Restaurateurs hope for hungry diners after tough times for some in 2010.

January 11, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com
(Tim Berger/Staff…)

Sluggish economic activity over the past year has made for lean times at many La Cañada Flintridge restaurants, but local culinary entrepreneurs are optimistic that 2011 will bring resurgence in customers' appetites.

In 2010, locals continued a three-year trend of scaling back on dining out, making fewer visits and running up lower checks, said several restaurant owners.

At Berge's sandwich shop, a local institution at its current Foothill Boulevard location since 1979, sales started to rebound late last year but diners continue to purchase fewer beverages and side orders than before recession hit, according to manager John Yeghiaian.

While sandwich orders are down less than 10%, the restaurant sells as much as two-thirds fewer drinks with those sandwiches, he said.

"We're almost back to normal, and that's shocking given how much we were down at the midway point of the year. What hasn't come back, though, are the drinks and chips and salads. We've started giving out water cups at a phenomenal rate," Yeghiaian said.

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Next door at Min's Kitchen Thai restaurant, owner Toi Vanasin has been holding prices steady and increasing portions despite higher supply costs.

"We still have many of the customers we're used to seeing, but they've cut down," said Vanasin, who this autumn saw lunch sales fall nearly 40% under previous years' levels. While dinner sales have been less hard hit, she also had to reduce shifts for kitchen and wait staff last year.

Though locals still crave his pizza at night and on weekends, weekday lunchtimes have also been slower for Georgee's Pizza owner George Jacobs.

"Look at the empty properties on Foothill: Those were my [lunch] customers — places I used to deliver to every week," said Jacobs, who started the business in 1980. "But we've been through this before, and it'll bounce back."

Blair Salisbury, past president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the California Restaurant Association and owner of the El Cholo restaurant in Pasadena, said that while pricier fine-dining locations continue to struggle, value-driven and fast-casual concepts are already seeing better times.

"Last year wasn't so good, but for the most part the outlook is pretty optimistic for a rebound in restaurants in 2011. People aren't buying yachts, but they are starting to eat out more," Salisbury said.

"It's almost fashionable to be frugal again," said Dish restaurant owner Kevin Finch.

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